Thursday, April 2, 2009

En la Catalonia profunda

Nearly two hours outside Barcelona, our little car curved around staggering green mountains capped with bizarre rock formations. My Catalan friend Laia had invited me to a calçotada, a gastronomical event typical to the region held at the end of winter based upon the en masse consumption of barbecued calçots, an elongated onion type plant. We tried to contain our nausea as we delved deeper into the valley, taking sharp turns around the mountainside spiraled with shallow brick vineyard walls. We were deep in Catalonian wine country, far off any tourist map.

Just when we feared ourselves lost we arrived to the tiny, remote village of La Vilelle Baixa, Catalan for low valley, nestled deep among the astounding mountains. I regretted not bringing my camera because I felt like I was in the middle of a travel magazine photo spread. The Catalan flag flew high. Laia warned her cinematographer boyfriend and me that here our Spanish would get us nowhere.

On the edge of the town we found the public picnic-type site where a team had been assembling hundreds of bundles of still-grubby calçots and piling vines to be used for kindle on the steel barbecues since 7 a.m. Vine smoke clouded the air and the fire crackled. Big dogs wandered around as a couple of mothers played with their toddlers and nursed their babies. The crowd was dressed in hoodies and sneakers. Googly-eyed young couples embraced among friends who laughed at good-natured taunts. A group sat in a circle on the ground playing guitar in the afternoon sun. I felt a world away from chic Barcelona.

As the calçots weren’t quite ready we set off to explore the maze of streets in the village. It had a population of about 100 with the nearest city more than an hour away, according to Laia's veterinarian friend who worked nearby inoculating sheep. Barcelona-born Laia shuddered, explaining that she would be terrified living in such isolation without neighbors above and below. Thinking of my West Virginia roots I jokingly dubbed her a true urbanita.

The village residents must have thighs of steel; We struggled up the nearly vertical streets to get a view of the cathedral, near the sole plaza good-humoredly named New York City. We only came across one little boy playing in the streets as it was the siesta hour.

We returned to find the calçot-team removing the roasted packets from the embers and wrapping them in newspaper to be steamed. We all worked together to dish out the obligatory pounded salvitxada sauce for dipping the mild scallions. They’d bought the largest round loaf of bread any of us had ever seen, made especially for the occasion by a local baker and weighing in at 5 kilos. We cut off chunky slices and then rubbed on tomatoes and olive oil.

Then the frenzy of a feast commenced. A jug of red wine began flowing into our small plastic cups. While standing, we peeled the still-grubby, char-grilled skins off the onion spears, tossing the blackened remainders in a pile on the newspaper. We tilted our heads back to drop the long, gangly strings in our mouths like baby birds with worms.
Soon our hands were black with charcoal and soil from the freshly harvested leek-type plants. Everyone joked that this all must seem so primitive to a foreigner like me. I must consider Catalans barbarians, they said. But I just smiled, dangling another calçot above my head and downing it with as much gusto as the rest of them.

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